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School Matters: Students' 'Core Needs' Not Being Met

New America Media, Interview, Carolyn Goossen Posted: Feb 01, 2010

Editor's Note: This week, school districts throughout California began laying out the severe budget cuts they will have to make next school year, the cumulative effect of state education cuts made over the past few years combined with additional reductions proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his proposed budget for 2010-2011.

John Rogers, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA), spoke to NAM editor Carolyn Goossen about the impact of the recession and continuing budget cuts on low-income students.

According to your recent report titled, Educational Opportunities in Hard Times: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Public Schools and Working Families, the recession and budget cuts have disproportionately affected educational opportunities for the poorest kids in the state. Why are they hit the hardest?

Because of budget cuts, schools across the state have had many of their programs eroded or depleted, and many of these were geared towards low-income kids.

There is also a dramatic difference in fundraising between [low and high poverty] schools. Some people have been talking about fundraising at the local level [as a way to offset state cuts]. But the more affluent schools in our study took in $168,000 [this year], about eight times as much as the high poverty schools. So through fundraising, inequalities are exacerbated.

Across the state, the vast majority of principals had to issue pink slips for teachers that meant they would likely be let go, or bumped from one school to another. But actual lay offs were four times more likely in high poverty schools.

Why were more teachers in high poverty schools laid off?

Because of inequitable patterns, more young teachers are placed in high poverty schools. Layoffs are determined through seniority. Therefore they are the ones laid off first.

Another area of impact is the quality of materials [in high poverty schools]. Schools are delaying purchasing of textbooks and other materials.

Isnt the Williams settlement , which requires that all students have instructional materials, a clean school and qualified teachers, supposed to protect the right of all students in California to have access to basic learning conditions, including up-to-date classroom materials?

The state says we need to help districts deal with this budget crisis through allowing them flexibility. [This has led to] increasing class size in kindergarten through third grade, less oversight about how facilities are kept up, and purchasing new textbooks.

Clearly the conditions highlighted in Williams have been eroded. There has been improvement over the last five years after Williams and other policies [took effect], but that has largely been washed away.

There has been a strong emphasis over the past few years in improving instruction and opportunities for English learner students in California. How have these initiatives been affected?

Many different programs that have supported English language learners were eroded. Also, all around the state, the loss of after-school and summer school programs means less services to English learners.

Principals in our study talked about having to do away with professional development, being diverted from their roles as instructional leaders because of having to deal with social service needs, or having their staff cut.

Are principals anticipating a much worse year next year, without the cushion of the stimulus dollars from the federal government?

There is a real diversity in how much principals know about how federal funds flow in. We do know that without the stimulus the effects would have been far more significant. In effect, the cuts to the states education budget would have been over 10 percent. But because of the stimulus, it was five percent.

The stimulus package was created with the belief that tax revenues would be regenerated within the next couple of years. For political reasons, the stimulus money was created in a way that assumed that all states would be hit the same. Both of these assumptions proved erroneous.

Principals are concerned. They know they are looking forward to a tough year. Many principals thought they could stretch themselves and their staff for a year or so. But they are really worried about long-term sustainability. They spoke about burnout and a sense that the physical infrastructure of their schools was suffering and would suffer more.

Your report has found that low-income students are bearing the brunt of the recession and budget cuts. The stimulus package also includes a $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition among states. Has that had any impact on the education of these students?

I completely understand why many elected officials and advocates across the state were focusing on the Race to the Top application. It does represent a substantial amount of additional funding, and there arent many other ways to get half a billion dollars.

But at the same time, its important to recognize that the logic of the competition is that we are going to add some additional money in your system so you can innovate and try something new that will hopefully work, especially for students who havent done well.

That logic, to some extent, assumes that core needs are being met, and that these funds will supplement those core needs.

But in California core needs were not being met [before the recession] and are not being met now, especially in districts with poor kids, so the logic that may make a lot of sense in Massachusetts makes
a lot less sense in California.

Only districts that sign on would get funds, and the money is tied to particular areas. It seems problematic to focus on a competition model where only some districts would have access to a pool of additional funds.

Two pieces of legislation were passed to make California eligible for Race To The Top. One piece was about parents right to transfer their kids out of failing schools, and the other was about using teacher data to evaluate their performance with regards to student achievement.

These two bills are examples of opportunistic law making. That is, they emerged in response to an opportunity created by new federal funds. I don't fault legislators for focusing attention on the Race to the Top competition. In difficult fiscal times, lawmakers are bound to do everything they can to secure additional funding for California's poorly resourced schools.

What is important is for legislators to turn now to the broader questions of how to meet the growing needs of California's working families and public schools in this period of economic crisis. No matter what the federal government decides to do with California's application for the Race to the Top funds, much work lies ahead. 

Related Articles:

School Matters: California Must Raise Latino Student Achievement

Living the Education Gap as a San Jose Teacher


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